Get Personal: The Foundation of Every Inquiry Classroom

Inquiry-based classrooms thrive on the foundation of trusting relationships and strong emotional bonds. How do we create emotional bonds with our students at every stage of learning?

Teaching is one of the most cognitively and emotionally complex professions on the planet. Not only do teachers need to plan, teach, and assess for individual academic growth, they also need to develop a personal relationship with each student. When asked about what good teachers have in common, cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham writes emphatically that it’s not about the style of teaching that is most important to student learning, but the emotional bonds that are forged. In his book, Why Don’t Students Like School? he writes: “The emotional bond between teacher and student - for better or worse - accounts for whether students learn.”

Think back to the teachers in your own life who made the biggest impact on you academically. Likely, there were strong emotions associated with that teacher. Hopefully, good ones.

At the start of each quarter, I ask my undergraduate students in my Teaching as a Profession course at the University of Washington to list all the K-12 teachers and coaches they remember. Even fresh out of K-12, this is a tough assignment. I then make it tougher and ask them to choose the one teacher who had the biggest positive impact on their life. The exploration culminates in a letter to that teacher, explaining what made the difference for them. I now have hundreds letters with some predictable patterns and common quotes:

“She took the time to talk with me 1:1. It made me feel like I mattered.”

“He told great stories.”

“She shared her life with us. It felt like we were a part of her world.”

“He got on our level and didn’t treat us like kids.”

I never read a letter that complimented teachers on their well-organized lesson plans, in-depth writing feedback, or excellent pacing. Of course, these things are important, but without strong emotional bonds, they lose their power. Knowing and Teaching like Yourself, whether you are shy and reserved, an extroverted showboat, or somewhere in between is really the key to this strategy. For those looking for ways to deepen emotional bonds, we offer three ideas this month:

1) Tell Stories

Consummate storyteller, Carmen Agra Deedy, at the 2011 National Book Festival

Consummate storyteller, Carmen Agra Deedy, at the 2011 National Book Festival

“[Stories] teach us how to treat our enemies, how to fight our monsters, how to die with dignity, how to laugh at ourselves,” asserts Agra Deedy in her brilliant speech at the 2011 National Book Festival. Humans think in narratives, so if you want students to remember something, stories are a great way to get new information to stick. Stories don’t always have to be content-related, however; they can also be used to reveal more about ourselves to our students. Share stories about your pets (past and present), children or yourself as a child, your mistakes, embarrassments, accomplishments, dreams. Trust me, they will be riveted and won’t forget these. Your stories don’t have to take long, but they do have to be honest and honestly told. Here are three sites that offer specific ways (and videos) to help increase and improve your storytelling repertoire:

  1. The Power of Sharing Your Story (Edutopia)

  2. Build Student Trust by Sharing Stories (EdWeek)

  3. How to Tell a Great Story: Using the Science of Storytelling To Share Your Message (Science of People)

2) Create Rituals, Routines, & Rhythms

Fred Rogers (1928-2003)

Fred Rogers (1928-2003)

For anyone who needs some loving kindness in documentary form, be sure to check out Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the life and legacy of Fred Rogers. Mr. Rogers was a fixture in my life as a child. He was one of the few adults in my life who spoke with me as an equal, not at me like a child. He was prompt; I could depend on him. And, perhaps most noticeably, he stuck to a routine; I could anticipate his moves and join in. Whether he realized it at the time or not, Mr. Rogers was picking up the best of what we know from cognitive science about the importance of rituals and routines in establishing emotional bonds. He brought a semblance of order into a chaotic and often dissonant world. Religious schools are uniquely able to apply the rituals of their faith in a similar way; prayers, services, song, candle-lighting reassure students that there is an order, that they are a part of it, and that this order can be learned and followed.

Many use the word “rhythm” to describe their ritual or routine. A rhythm implies something beyond order, something harmonizing and vibrational. The word rhythm also reminds us of the power of music and song in learning (too often ignored in secondary classrooms). Below are some rituals, routines, or rhythms that you may want to incorporate into your classroom, if you don’t already:

  1. Routine, Ritual, and School Community (Edutopia)

  2. Student-Teacher Conference (Goalbook Toolkit)

  3. The Music Connection (ASCD)

3) Share The ‘Why’

Because students can’t help but “pay attention to the man behind the curtain”!

Because students can’t help but “pay attention to the man behind the curtain”!

Instead of stating the objectives at the beginning of class, I now share the ‘why’ behind objectives, from a personal point of view. For example, one objective in my Comparative International Education class is to draw a freehand map of the world in five minutes or less. Here’s what I say to get them invested in the ‘why’:

“In this course, you’re going learn to draw a freehand map of the world. This might strike fear and loathing in you. When I first learned to do this, I felt the same. However, I can tell you from personal experience that knowing where countries are located and where they are in relation to one another has really helped me when I read news articles or try to understand history. Too many of my friends will have to pause and review maps before moving forward when they read. So, this skill has really saved me a ton of time. Plus, it’s a great hidden talent to have!”

Sharing the ‘why’ is particularly important with older students who are starting to question the purpose of ‘doing school’ beyond getting to the next grade level. Let students in on the ‘why’ behind what you are designing and assigning for them. Narrative your thoughts about content and process. Invite students into your head a little, setting up a conspiratorial “we’re in this together” vibe. Pull that curtain aside and let them see what it’s all about. Here are some other ways to let students in on the ‘why’:

  1. Sharing Learning Intentions (Improving Teaching Blog)

  2. The Well-Balanced Teacher: Teaching with a Sense of Purpose (ASCD)

  3. What is the Purpose of Your Lesson? (The Progressive Teacher)

Sharing stories, creating unique rituals, and remembering / sharing the ‘why’ behind the work you are asking students to engage in are all great ways to strengthen the foundational relationships necessary in inquiry-based, cognitively demanding, and happy classrooms.

What works extraordinarily well in your classroom? Please share your story in the comment box below.

Webinar: We hope to see you next Wednesday (October 10th) from 5 - 6 PM PST- (  for our one-hour Webinar. Please read this Tips for Zoom calls sheet first.

Twitter Chat: Wednesday (October 17th) also from 5 - 6 PM PST for a one-hour Twitter Chat (#ExperienceInquiry) to connect with others and explore the Get Personal strategy in greater depth. Remember that by participating for the full hour, you will be eligible for one clock hour for each event. Questions? Contact Kimberly:

Thank you for continuing to explore inquiry with us!

Kimberly & Maggie